How do you follow up one of the finest albums of the last decade? That’s the question facing Devin Townsend after 2019’s sensational Empath record, and it’s one that invites trepidation from artist and fan alike. Lockdown saw him release a live LP and a double album based on 2004’s Devlab, but Lightwork is the first attempt to produce the successor to Empath, and it will disappoint those hoping for another prog metal masterpiece. Those of you with wider tastes will acknowledge the flashes of genius here and might ask if Devin is in the song writing form of his life.
The best reference for this record is the way the Smashing Pumpkins followed up 1995’s monumental rock saga, Mellon Collie & the Infinite Sadness, with 1998’s introspective and lighter opus, Adore. Only faint traces of aggression and self-destruction remain in Devin’s contemporary work. Opener, ‘Moonpeople’, subsists on a late 1990s trip-hop beat and showcases the falsetto magic of its creator’s voice. The fanbase will recognise a clear attempt to write a sequel to ‘Spirits Will Collide’, and the palm-muted guitars and dramatic orchestral hits at the end will keep you on edge. You can see why this was a lead single, but it’s also the reason you might approach this album with the possibility that Devin could be entering the first light-hearted phase of his career. It feels like a contented personality behind these opening songs.
In fact, the first four tracks operate in a colourful alternative rock domain that could easily win heavy rotation on mainstream radio. The melodies on ‘Lightworker’ are radiant and infectious – the chorus will conjure images of your body floating through the brilliance of an immortal wonderland. ‘Equinox’ thrives on Devin’s dream-like croon amidst a layering of beeping synthesisers, yet he also exercises his legendary roar in the most unexpected of passages with no corresponding acceleration of aggression in the music. By the time ‘Call of the Void’ ends, you have every right to question if this will be a melodic rock affair with predictable structures and fluffy melodies.
Fortunately, Devin remembers his prog tendencies in the second-third of Lightwork, and this is where his heavy music fanbase can breathe a sigh of relief. The triple succession of ‘Heartbreaker’, ‘Dimensions’ and ‘Celestial Signals’ remind you why this man is an undisputed genius in rock and metal. ‘Heartbreaker’ is not a Led Zeppelin cover but a stunning mix of shoegaze and stadium rock with metal guitar techniques. The children’s choir vocals in the chorus are as poignant as the heavenly female voice at the end repeating “love is the word” over the top of Devin’s epic guitar riffing. This record’s heart belongs in the 1980s. Listen to the classic Depeche Mode flow of ‘Dimensions’ with its powerful synth bass hooks and dark-room theatrics for the goth dancefloor. Throw in a weird Jeff Beck-esque solo and Devin’s throat abrasions from the Strapping Young Lad days, and you have one of the strangest and most enjoyable delights of 2022. He even ends on a head-banging lap of thrash metal for the faithful.
Of course, Devin can write a chorus, and nowhere is this more apparent than on the clenched-jaw emotions of ‘Celestial Signals’, which mixes the Pet Shop Boys and gothic rock in a remarkable five minutes of rumination. Can you feel the slow-motion significance of the moment passing through you as Devin reaches for the smoothest of his earnest vocal notes? “Oh, when all we do/ Cries out with all that’s true/ Never regret for a minute/ Now all is new.” If the album ended here, it would be a magnificent recovery operation.
But we must never lose sight when an artist of Devin’s stature embraces the wrong type of risks. ‘Vacation’ could be a suave Britpop song from the heyday of Pulp – it’s not objectionable in terms of melody, but it’s inconsequential on a prog rock album. Likewise, closing track, ‘Children of God’, does little to justify ten minutes of dramatic Enya posturing. Might there come a day when this is all we will receive on a Devin Townsend record? This possibility is enough to sound the alarm bells.
The man’s talent is awe-inspiring, and his craftsmanship shows no signs of decline, but the Devin Townsend fanbase might wonder if they’re losing their idol to a softer and more accessible artist who matters more to the high-brow music press.
Release Date: 04/11/2022
Record Label: Inside Out Music
Standout tracks: Heartbreaker, Dimensions, Celestial Signals
Suggested Further Listening: Smashing Pumpkins – Adore (1998), Dawnwalker – Ages (2020), Danny Elfman – Big Mess (2021)